World Leprosy Day
Today is the 53rd World Leprosy Day. For many of us who live in the developed world, in prosperous societies, leprosy may be no more than a Biblical affliction. Properly called Hansen's disease, the tragedy of leprosy is that, with medical care and adequate sanitation, it is curable and preventable. Yet it still persists and I have even witnessed young people who are dying because of open wounds and infections caused by leprosy; it is a heart-rending sight...
Almost two years ago, I was privileged to spend a week in a leprosarium called Tala, outside Metro Manila in the Philippines. Few people can visit this place, the oldest lepers' refuge in Asia, and not be moved. I was then a guest of the Dominican Brothers of St Martin de Porres ('Martinians Brothers', on left) and visited the leprosarium with them on several occasions. I spoke to the patients, held them and comforted them, joined them in song and prayer and listened to their stories. I also accompanied the Martinian Brothers to the out-patient clinic (below right) where they attended to the putrid wounds of the lepers every day. It was a very humbling sight and although at times I wanted to turn my face away, I made myself look, mindful that in them was Christ the Suffering Servant who was so disfigured that we shielded our faces from Him.
The Martinian Brothers are devoted to caring for leper patients and the terminally ill. Inspired by St Martin de Porres, they humbly strive to be used by God in the most dreadful of situations, to bring his balm of love to the wounded of society. For what many lepers feel more deeply than their physical wounds is the stigma of the disease; even rehabilitated patients who are no longer infectious are shunned by society, unable to find jobs. As such, they have found a home in Tala and here they have families and a community. Here too the Dominicans have congregated to share God's love with them. Apart from the Martinians, there is a large school offering free education for primary through to tertiary-level to all patients and their children (below). The school, Holy Rosary College, was founded in 1951 by Fr Anthony Leo Hofstee, O.P. and it is currently run by Dominican Sisters. The school is in need of funding and donations and last year I was honoured to assist a fellow Dominican Volunteer, Desiree Hwang in her efforts to raise funds for the Holy Rosary Foundation.
I admit that when I initially was asked to meet the patients I had some anxiety due to my ignorance about Hansen's disease. However, I did some research on the internet about leprosy and learnt more about it, I prayed for the grace to reach out to the people I met and then I went out and listened to them. Since them, I have returned to Tala several times and, as I listen to the stories of the people who live there, each trip is a revelation of the depths of love, tenacity and the strength of the human person; God's grace truly is evident in Tala.
The Holy Father, in his Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, has reminded us that charity is intrinsic to the Church and Christian life: let us put his words into practise. Today on World Leprosy Day, I ask you to open your hearts, let us dispel ignorance and do be scandalized that this disease, so easily avoided, still exists in the poorest nations; and then let's tell others about it. Let's pray for the patients and their families and carers and let's do something practical - help an organization that caters to the patients of Hansen's disease. If you want to find out more about Tala and the Dominican projects I have mentioned here or if you'd like to help them in some way, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.